Grades/Level: High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts, History–Social Science
Time Required: 3–5–Part Lesson

Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

For the Classroom

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Lesson Overview

Students will research how the development of the atomic bomb affected people in World War II, participate in a debate about the bomb's use, and investigate how it has affected people's lives since 1945.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• analyze photographic images.
• research a specific topic within world history.
• participate in a debate about whether the United States should have used the atomic bomb to end World War II.
• understand what it was like to live during the Cold War with the threat of nuclear weapons.


• Image of Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud
• For background information: "Timeline: The Atomic Bomb"
• Research materials such as encyclopedias, the library, and the Internet

Lesson Steps

The decision to drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was and still is controversial. The ramifications of creating and using the world's first nuclear weapon are still with us today and have shaped much of world history for the past 60 years. Through research and debate, this lesson will allow students to examine the reasons the bomb was made and used, and to determine its long-term effects.

1. Begin by using the following questions to examine the image Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud.
• This is a photo of the atomic bomb blast over Nagasaki, Japan. Begin by describing what you see in the photograph.
• From what point of view do we see the atomic bomb blast?
• Where is the photographer situated? Why would he or she have wanted to take the photo from that location?
• Do you think the photograph glorifies or condemns the power of the bomb? What aspects of the image support your conclusion?
• Do you think this image removes the emotional impact of the devastating effects of the bomb? How? Why would you want to remove the emotional impact of such a destructive device?

2. Divide the students into groups and have them research and answer the following questions:
• Describe the events leading up to the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. What was happening in the war? What was happening in the U.S.? How was the atomic bomb developed?
• If you were the president in 1945, would you have used the atomic bomb on Japan?
• What was the justification for using the bomb and killing so many people?
• What were the effects of the bomb in the cities of Nagasaki and Hiroshima in the days and years following its detonation?

3. Once they have completed their research over a couple of class periods, have them report their findings to the class.

4. Once everyone has presented, hold a class debate about the conflicting issues over the use of the bomb, considering this question:
Looking through the lens of history at all that we know has happened since 1945, do you think we can look back on this moment and make a clear judgment on whether or not we should have used the atomic bomb on Japan?

5. Have students interview someone who lived in America from the 1950s through the 1980s, during the Cold War. Students should write a report on their findings.
• What are their interviewee's thoughts on the A-bomb and its use on Japan in 1945?
• Was the person afraid of a possible nuclear war?
• What country did they fear was most likely to start a nuclear war?
• Were they afraid of being killed by a nuclear bomb?

6. After students have debated the issues and spoken to someone about the Cold War, have them reexamine the image Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud and ask some of the same questions you asked at the beginning of this lesson to see if their interpretation of the image has changed:
• Do you think the photograph glorifies or condemns the power of the bomb? What aspects of the image support your conclusion?
• How has your impression of this image changed after doing all of your research?
• Do you think this is an unemotional image? Why or why not?
• Do you think it is possible to understand this image without knowing the history behind it?

Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud / Unknown
Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud, U.S. Army Air Force, August 9th, 1945


Students will be assessed based on their participation in class discussion and their ability to work collaboratively to do research on the topic.


• Have a discussion about nuclear proliferation (the spread from nation to nation of nuclear technology), including both nuclear power and nuclear weapons.
• What are the threats of nuclear weapons being used today?
• Why are many countries concerned with the development of nuclear weapons by countries like India and Pakistan, or North Korea?
• With our knowledge of the destructive power of such weapons, consider the motivations of countries who are still pursuing the development of such weapons?
• What is a dirty bomb? What do government officials mean when they talk about the possibility of terrorists creating a "dirty bomb"?
• What should be done with the weapons that are still lingering from the stockpile of nuclear arms created in the Cold War?

• Look in books or on the Web for other images of the bombing and destruction of Nagasaki, Japan, and compare them to the image Nagasaki Mushroom Cloud. How do other images portray the bombing or its destructive power?

While we assume the person who took the mushroom cloud image was an Air Force serviceman, we don't know that for sure. It is known that there were three other planes on the mission, and that a reporter for The New York Times was on one of them, covering the story. Write a job description for the photographer who would be going on assignment to capture the devastating effects of the nuclear blast over Nagasaki. Students can use encyclopedias and books and search the Internet for writings about the subject.

• Investigate how Japanese Americans were treated in the United States following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the United States' entry into the war. The lesson and image listed below address this issue:

Image: Pledge of Allegiance by Dorothea Lange

Lesson Plan: Dorothea Lange and the Relocation of Japanese Americans

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 9–12

Key Ideas and Details
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.
2. Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Craft and Structure
4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.

Text Types and Purposes
3. Write narratives to develop real or imagined experiences or events using effective technique, well-chosen details, and well-structured event sequences.

Production and Distribution of Writing
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge
7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Presentation of Knowledge and Ideas
4. Present information, findings, and supporting evidence such that listeners can follow the line of reasoning and the organization, development, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Visual Arts Proficient for California Public Schools
Grades 9–12

Analyze Art Elements and Principles of Design
1.3 Research and analyze the work of an artist and write about the artist's distinctive style and its contribution to the meaning of the work.
1.4 Analyze and describe how the composition of a work of art is affected by the use of a particular principle of design.

Historical and Cultural Context
Diversity of the Visual Arts
3.3 Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected works of art.

History—Social Science Stadards for California Public Schools

Grade 10

10.8 Students analyze the causes and consequences of World War II.
Discuss the human costs of the war, with particular attention to the civilian and military losses in Russia, Germany, Britain, the United States, China, and Japan.
10.9 Students analyze the international developments in the post-World World War II world.
Compare the economic and military power shifts caused by the war, including the Yalta Pact, the development of nuclear weapons, Soviet control over Eastern European nations, and the economic recoveries of Germany and Japan.
Discuss the establishment and work of the United Nations and the purposes and functions of the Warsaw Pact, SEATO, NATO, and the Organization of American States.

Grade 11
11.7 Students analyze America's participation in World War II.
Examine the origins of American involvement in the war, with an emphasis on the events that precipitated the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Describe major developments in aviation, weaponry, communication, and medicine and the war's impact on the location of American industry and use of resources.
Discuss the decision to drop atomic bombs and the consequences of the decision (Hiroshima and Nagasaki).